Probation, not prison for 1,000s?
A big change could be in store for Georgia’s criminal justice system: a shift by diverting non-violent offenders away from prison and instead toward drug rehabilitation and other supervision programs such as probation.
Some of the recommendations from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform would also shift the cost burden of incarceration to local communities by raising the thresholds on what constitutes a felony theft or deposit account fraud charge.
Fayette County District Attorney Scott Ballard said last month that he favors improving the justice system, but he is wary of limiting judges’ tools to sentence offenders.
“It’s kind of like trying to play golf with just one club in the bag,” Ballard said. “You need tools suited for each individual circumstance.”
While Georgia’s laws have resulted in non-violent habitual shoplifters being sent to prison, the catch is if they remain in the community, everyone pays increased prices at stores due to the harm they commit, Ballard said.
Ballard said that he thinks drug courts such as the one here in Fayette County “can be remarkably effective” to get people off of drugs. And he also likes the idea of lifting the felony thresholds for theft offenses.
But he’s going to want some proof before getting behind the idea that probation is a more effective punishment for prison in a number of other circumstances.
“If somebody can show me the approach that puts more people on probation keeps everybody safer than what we’re doing, I’ll be willing to listen,” Ballard said. “But I haven’t seen a single suggestion about caring how safe the citizens are: it’s all about money.”
The various recommendations came from the council, a dozen state leaders including six legislators who proposed a variety of changes to Georgia laws. Those recommendations are based in large part on statistics which show that drug and property offenders represent almost 60 percent of all admissions to the state prison system.
The prison system costs taxpayers $1 billion a year, and if current policies and statutes remain in place, prison population growth is projected to grow 8 percent in five years, according to the council’s report.
The council contends that the state can spend the same amount of money and improve the recidivism rate by implementing a variety of changes, including the adoption of accountability courts such as drug courts, which offer specialized treatment with the goal of ridding an individual’s dependency on drugs.
But in some cases, the costs would be pushed onto local communities like Fayette County. For example, the council has recommended raising the thresholds on what constitutes a felony theft. By increasing the limit from $500 to $1,500 as recommended, that would push all cases under $1,500 to either Fayette County State Court or the municipal courts in Fayetteville, Peachtree City or Tyrone.
The felony threshold for deposit account fraud, also known as passing a bad check, would also be raised from $500 to $1,500, which also would push even more cases to local courts because offenses under $1,500 would be considered misdemeanors.
Those increases in thresholds would also mean that local communities would be responsible for paying jail costs for those convicted instead of the state.
The council also is recommending an increase on the theft by shoplifting threshold from $300 to $750.
Another significant change would come to Georgia’s burglary laws, with the crime being split into two degrees: burglary in the second degree being that which takes place in unoccupied structures such as sheds, barns and the like. Burglary in the first degree would be applied when a dwelling is entered, regardless of whether it is occupied or unoccupied. The council recommends that the sentencing range correspond to the degree of the offense, with a longer sentence “for serious offenses that involve residential homes.”
The council also suggests instead of imprisoning persons for drug possession charges to have them put on probation instead, but if that happens, courts and probation officers must have improved and expanded options. As such, the council is recommending additional day reporting centers, residential treatment centers and accountability courts.
Some 3,200 offenders are admitted to prison each year for a drug possession conviction, without being convicted of drug sales or trafficking, according to the council’s report. About two-thirds of those offenders are assessed as having a lower risk to re-offend, the council noted.
The council is also recommending expanded funding for the prevalence and effectiveness of probationers’ drug testing and an increase in the use of “GPS monitoring for appropriate offenders.”
Currently, probation and parole agencies don’t have the resources required to supervise offenders adequately, the council concluded in its report.
The council’s report also suggests that persons convicted of “low level” drug sale offenses also be considered for probation, but only if the offender shows the conduct was done to support his drug addiction.
The council’s work was authorized by the legislature last year, and it consists of 12 members including six legislators.